By Randy Wagstaff
Childish Gambino‘s Because the Internet is not just an album; it is an all-encompassing social media experiment complete with instagrams of self-reflective notes written on pads from the Marriott hotel, bemusing tweets filled with red-herrings, and, of course, a 75 page screenplay accompanied by a short film. All of this content is meant to compliment the album (and vice-versa), and to provide enriching context for the overall experience. The internet can seem like a social interactive zone where everyone who is lucky enough to have access to it is free to mingle. Heck, if you’re a white male, places like Reddit can seem borderline inclusive; however, the reality that Gambino struggles with on Because the Internet is both timely, and extremely worthwhile: to live online is to live in isolation.
Throughout the project’s multiple efforts to relay this notion, Donald Glover, or Childish Gambino, depending on the medium, struggles with anxiety, self-doubt, and alienation. He first tells us this through his Instagram account, and we immediately relate, because the feelings are honest and human. Then he tells us again on YouTube, and on every page of his screenplay, and by the time the album comes around, we have had the themes shoved in our faces so many times that their meaning has been diluted. Because the Internet should be the plat principal at a fine restaurant; instead, it is the last order of spicy tuna before the ice cream at an “all you can eat.” The screenplay is interesting, and Glover has proven himself a talented writer, but in the context of the album it is an inedible flower that compliments the presentation of the plate, but adds little substance to the dish as a whole. (Anyone who has watched any of The Food Network’s reality cooking competitions like Top Chef or Chopped knows you never, ever, put anything on the plate that Iron Chef Geoffrey Zakarian cannot consume.) The album is either honest, in which case the extra-musical performance is an exercise in circumlocution, or the entire project is the musical equivalent of “I’m Not There,” in which case the two are equally interesting. Frank Ocean’s honest letter informed the themes of Channel Orange and definitely aided its popularity, but the album stood on its own as a statement on the alienation of unrequited love. Because the Internet is a good album, and it could stand on its own given the chance, but the accompanying projects get in the way of that, and the overall listening experience suffers because of it.
The album’s first-half production is memorable, from songs like “Crawl” (prod: Childish Gambino and Christian Rich) to “The Worst Guys” (Childish Gambino and Ludwig Goransson) to “Telegraph Ave (“Oakland by Lloyd”)”, which cleverly starts off by having Lloyd’s “Oakland” play diagetically from a car stereo as the album’s protagonist drives to see a girl; when Gambino starts singing, it sounds like he’s simply singing along. He sounds closer than Lloyd, but until the third verse, only slightly so. His voice is detached and nebulous when he asks, “And if I left you all alone, would you still pick up the phone?” There are wonderful moments like this where the album speaks without the need for explanation or contextualization. The singer is lonely and anxious about seeing an ex, and that is easy to relate to because the song is honest, and honest music has the potential to be emotionally affecting. Unfortunately, the over-analyzation that comes along with this song and with the album as a whole is enough to make an English major cringe, and makes it difficult for the music to seem emotionally authentic. It all seems too well planned out, too meticulous, too careful. Like a cheap-trick movie manipulating its viewers with musical breaks, the experience of listening to Because the Internet feels rigidly dictated.
Of course, music does not have a responsibility to be honest, and it does not have to be in order to be good, just like movies or TV shows don’t have to be scientifically plausible, but when a project is based around its scientific accuracy, or, in Gambino’s case, around its brutal honesty, the responsibility is created by the artist. Gambino does this with Because the Internet, and we as listeners accept that, but we are left feeling condescended to because we did not need to be told over and over again. We all belong to the internet’s wasteland. “We’re all stuck here,” Glover writes on his initial instagram, and looking back we want to say, “You had us right there.” You had us at “I’m afraid.” Instead of attempting to showcase every bit of creative talent on one project, Gambino could have made great use of Coco Chanel’s famous words of advice. Lack of editing leads to confusion, and Because the Internet has definitely confused and divided, well, the internet; last week, Glover tweeted, “My album isnt done,” and if you listened closely, you could hear the internet sigh.